Commentary. In response to Trump's recent indictment, Fox News anchor Sean Hannity remarked that this system 'could indict a ham sandwich.' Black activists have been saying this for years.

Trump and prison activists agree, the US legal system has been weaponized

Editor’s note: The authors are incarcerated in an Ohio prison.

Trump has been indicted. There is a lot of buzz about this subject here in prison. Obviously all of us have been indicted before. Many white prisoners mistakenly believe that Trump is “one of us.” Somehow a billionaire from the world’s financial capital is held to be “outside of the establishment.” Nonetheless, it is true that Trump’s case could have long-term legal implications for the criminal justice system.

Black Lives Matter sought to fundamentally transform the legal system. This failed when so much of its energy was channeled into punishing individual police officers. Just as white supremacy is more properly viewed as a system than as any individual’s disposition, brutal policing is a structural problem. Derek Chauvin is certainly guilty of murdering George Floyd. But Chauvin’s on-duty conduct had been atrocious for years, which means his entire department turned a blind eye. More than likely, they actually promoted it. Young men like Chauvin are not born killers; a toxic police culture born out of the old slave patrols makes them into killers.

Unfortunately, “leaders” like Ben Crump, the attorney for Floyd’s family, demand “change” in the form of legal battles for individual punishment and large sums of money. Perhaps he does not understand that such values are the very pillars of racial capitalism and the prison-industrial complex.[1] Leaders of the past, such as Dr. King and Malcolm X, understood that values and institutions must be the focus of our efforts. As a result, the Civil Rights Movement led to actual changes in the U.S. Constitution. The Black Lives Matter era has yet to yield results this deep or far-reaching.

It’s not that BLM doesn’t have visionaries. One of the co-founders of the movement, Patrisse Cullors, has spent a good portion of her life fighting for the fundamental transformation of American society. It’s just that the predominantly white politicians, business leaders, media outlets, and liberal reformers gave a bigger platform to Crump. His message is less threatening to their own power and privilege.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has been co-opted, another movement has once again riled up: MAGA. Trump’s legal troubles have enraged millions of his followers and spurred them into action against the legal system.

When the FBI raided Mar-A-Lago, right-wing media outlets lamented the fact that the Fourth Amendment, which is supposed to protect citizens against arbitrary searches and seizures, might as well not exist. The irony is that Black scholars and activists have been warning us about the Supreme Court constantly coming up with new “exceptions” to the Fourth Amendment for decades. [2]

In response to Trump’s recent indictment, Fox News anchor Sean Hannity remarked that this system “could indict a ham sandwich.” Once again, many Black activists were already all too familiar with the typical prosecutor’s playbook.

Prosecutors understand that a grand jury will indict with little to no evidence, so they charge a defendant with multiple crimes for a single illegal act. The defendant sees a terrifying, 20-page document with dozens of felony charges whose sentence adds up to decades in prison. Even people who are completely innocent face a hard choice: go to trial and risk losing everything, or take a deal and plead guilty to three or four charges. It’s easy to see why over 90 percent of all people convicted of a felony never went to trial, despite what Law and Order would have you believe.

Trump really is a victim of this process. He has allegedly lied about paying a single bribe to a single person, and yet he has been charged with 34 felonies. We view this as a teachable moment for our fellow white prisoners.

One of the pioneers of Critical Race Theory, Richard Delgado, has written that white scholars and activists have a responsibility to help the white working-class learn the truth about U.S. society. White prisoners almost invariably come from the lower classes and have plenty of reasons to mistrust the establishment in general and the legal system in particular.

Because we are also white prisoners, we are in a unique position to tell them, “Look. Trump is not the messiah you think he is. He is not one of us. He’s a billionaire from New York. Nonetheless, it is absolutely true that the Democrats are using the legal system as a weapon.”

That’s what the legal system is — a weapon. That’s why the fourth amendment is worthless, and that’s why the indictment and plea-bargaining process is rigged. That it was designed as a weapon of class warfare to be used against people like us doesn’t preclude it from being used against somebody like Trump.

Likewise, mass incarceration was fueled with anti-Black racism, but that makes it easier to lock you up, too. That’s why the U.S. incarcerates more of its white population than any other country in the world.

In our experience, many lower-class whites are more receptive to this message than many progressives would expect. Unfortunately, Fox News will complain that District Attorney Alvin Bragg is abusing his power by indicting Trump, and then in the same breath rant about how Bragg ‘refuses to charge career criminals with felonies.’ We must expose this hypocrisy. In doing so, we can help certain segments of Trump’s base see through their false-consciousness and abandon tough-on-crime politics.

[1] It’s not that we are against cash reparations to the family members of George Floyd and other victims of racist police violence. What we are against is the narrow-minded focus on individual lawsuits and piecemeal “reforms” so typical with the mainstream attorneys of late capitalism.

[2] See The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.

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